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Steven Goodwin [opinions]

Being open about "open" (source) [advocacy] [standards]

I’m not sure why it bothers me: I use the word "Free" when I’m talking about "Free Software", and "Open" when I mean "Open source". I’m very particular about my words, that way. But that's just me. I don't expect another religion to follow the rules of my own, or vice-versa. So why do I expect others to use words in the same way that I do? And why do I feel so cross about "Open standards", which come with proprietary documentation, a hefty price tag, and an NDA?

Perhaps part of the reason is focus. The fore-fathers of our movement used the word "Open" with a set of very specific meanings; free redistribution, no discrimination, unrestrictive, and so on. See OSD. But the Open Source Initiative didn't invent the word "Open" -- they simply re-appropriated it. They brought it into the field of computing, and redefined its meaning to suit their needs. I've spent so long believing in the OSI's handling of the word, that when someone else takes it and re-appropriates it for their needs, I get annoyed at their blinkered attitude. Especially when they are also involved in technology. But programmers are guilty of this approach, too. They might use the word 'object' to mean simply storage, while C programmers might use it to reference data, as C++ programmers use it to mean code and/or data. And so on. This is an equivalent situation, but it doesn't bother me and I'm not sure why! I guess it's my problem.

Perhaps another part of the problem is the relegation of my traditions to something trivial, and ripe for exploitation. Coming back to the OSI, it is a community-recognized body, and the community is one of which I am proud to be a member. But if some random, hitherto unknown, organization is selling their Standard into a market, (ab)using the word "Open", then they are effectively saying "your community is inconsequential." If Freddie Mercury told me I couldn't sing, I'd listen. If the drunken bum outside the local pub said the same thing, I'd ignore him. Criticism is only valuable through respect. So why do I actually care that this irrelevant body considers me irrelevant, and has stolen my word? I guess it's my problem.

Perhaps it's because they're not giving back. A standard is nothing without a reference implementation, and this one existed on MS Windows and GNU/Linux. In closed varieties. It looks like they're happy to use make, gcc, vi, X Window, and goodness knows what other Free and Open software to develop their standard, and demonstrate it as a competitive advantage, but offer nothing back in return. They are standing on our shoulders, so when we look up, it's no wonder that we see ****! But I've written closed-source applications for GNU/Linux before. My friends have. It's allowed. So why is this any different? I guess it's my problem.

Perhaps I don't like people keeping secrets. Unless you're a magician, you shouldn't have secrets! Any organization, especially one that's intent on installing software that controls your house, should be transparent in their motives. I want to know what is going on behind the scenes. I don't like the not knowing, so I guess it's my problem.

Perhaps it's my not being allowed to play in their yard. If I can help someone on an Internet forum, I must first "register free", wait for a confirmation email, reply to it, log-in, and then (sometimes) write an introduction before the software configuration will let me post a genuine reply -- lest it think I'm a spammer. This is a lot of work. But requiring that you sign up, and pay money for the privilege, raises the barrier to entry for myself and other suitably learned geeks. As a result they'll have excluded the very people they need on-board to champion the idea. As a consequence, these standards are likely to be ill-conceived, half-baked, broken... and guess who'll draw parallels with the debacle of WAP? But that's my problem, too.

So perhaps it is the money. I'm not paying to help them fix their standard. In fact, this approach limits it to those with money, who are not necessarily those with the understanding of the technology or the problem domain. I don't have the money to spend on this, nor is anyone likely to sponsor my membership. The strange thing is, I don't have a problem in paying to join my local amateur dramatics club, despite it's the same thing -- I am paying them, to help with their play. But it grates, so I guess it's my problem.

Oh, and if you think this is an apocryphal rant, you're half right! The reality of this situation was in an attempt to learn the details of a home automation protocol, so it could be integrated into Minerva - my Linux home automation project. The representative seemed interested in the scope of the project, and its functionality. I hadn't even mentioned it was Open Source. The point seemed irrelevant. But when I asked about downloads they took delight in telling me about their secure PDFs, charging structure, closed membership forums, charging structure, NDA's which "keep your product competitive", charging structure, and, er, their charging structure. Their agent didn't understand they'd got everything wrong. It wasn't just my individual prejudices that made me cold to them, it was their entire ethos. This in turn had led to the bastardization of the "Open" word, the closed membership and community, their concept of interoperability, and the money. Cause and effect were reversed. It was their fault.

My fault was in wasting time with them.


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